What causes water main breaks?

What causes water main breaks?
Posted on 02/14/2014

Lately, you may have noticed road crews working to repair several of the city’s streets, particularly Fort Union Boulevard between 1300 East and 1700 East. These are not regularly scheduled repairs. Most winter road repairs—and associated lane changes and road closures—are a result of broken water pipes.


Water main breaks can happen for a variety of reasons. And, although main breaks can happen at any time during the year, most are likely to occur during extreme weather conditions.

It is most common to see system leaks and main breaks when the weather is frigid and both air and water temperatures drop. Air temperature at or below freezing causes the ground above a pipe to freeze, increasing external stress on a pipe. Hot, dry weather can also take a toll; ground shifts and the increased volume and pressure can also stress water mains.

Besides changes in temperature, other factors that contribute to breaks include:

  • Pipe material. Most breaks occur in iron water mains. Water mains installed before 1980 are, for the most part, made of iron. Iron is not a very forgiving metal and has a tendency to crack when it expands or contracts due to temperature changes.
  • Soil erosion. A previous pipeline break, excavation or nearby construction activity can lead to unstable ground around water pipes.
  • Age. The break rate for pipes increases after 60 years. Age alone, however, cannot always be used as an indicator of failure. Some pipes installed in the early 1900s have never broken.

So what is the best way to identify water main breaks? If a contractor, for example, hits a water line during an excavation it will be noticed quickly. On the other hand, if a small hole or crack develops, it may not be noticed right away.  The water will typically find its way to the surface and because the line is under pressure, water will continue to run until the break is repaired.

To help prevent small leaks from becoming big problems and in order to reduce water loss, know how to identify a potential water main break. Here’s what to look for:

  • Water leaking around a metal valve lid.
  • Water leaking from a fire hydrant.
  • Water seeping up out of the ground around a hydrant or meter box.
  • Water seeping out of a road or other paved surface.
  • A water meter that runs even when there is not water on in the house.
  • Saturated soil or a puddle that never dries up.
  • Sinkholes or undermined streets or sidewalks.

If you notice any of these telltale signs, call your water supplier. Two entities supply water to the residents of Cottonwood Heights. They are Salt Lake City Public Utilities at 801-483- 6700 and Jordan Valley Water at 801-256-4401. Both phone lines are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.